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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Breaking Through the Gardol Screen

I only met him once, way back in1976. Ted Kennedy was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, I was the editor of a weekly alternative newspaper based in Cambridge called The Real Paper, and he paid me a visit, ostensibly to seek our endorsement.

We talked for nearly an hour. I can't remember what we discussed, but the feeling I had is still vivid. It was like talking to someone inside a plastic cage. What came to my mind at the time was an ad for the now-defunct toothpaste, Gardol, that talked about how the Gardol screen would protect your teeth. For days after our interview, I could not get that metaphor out of my mind. Ted Kennedy lived behind a Gardol screen. He seemed physically remote, miles away, even though there were only a couple of feet of space between us. I began to understand, just a little, what it must be like to have to be Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy's Senate career and, really, his overall leadership, had three phases:

(1) 1962-8, the early years, when he was overshadowed by his brother Robert and was just trying to establish his own legitimacy;

(2) 1968-80, when, after Robert's assassination, he took on the family responsibility to produce another president. He became a liberal icon and spokesperson for those without one before stumbling badly in his failed insurgency campaign to wrest the presidential nomination from his party's incumbent, Jimmy Carter (probably damaging Carter enough in the process to insure the election of Ronald Reagan that November); and

(3) 1981-2009, when he established the legacy he seemed to have craved, different from that of either of his brothers, to be the most effective United States Senator of his era. He seemed to consciously decide that if he wasn't going to be president, he wanted to get things done.

There was no leadership in phase 1, just survival. And his leadership in phase 2 was about advocacy and representation. He embodied the values of the Democratic left, taking on every cause that came his way, being predictable but inspiring to those who agreed with him and an infuriating symbol to those on the other side. His constituency was narrow but national, even international. And he sang their song eloquently and endlessly. People whom he spoke for felt represented. His was an important role, but however pleasing to his followers, it was not leadership.

Whatever combination of internal and external forces compelled him to mount his ill-fated challenge to Jimmy Carter, that failure created the freedom for him to find another more nuanced, unique, and authentic voice. And it was in phase 3, with a new wife and his presidential ambitions put to rest, that he secured his leadership legacy as a consummate deal maker who was willing to talk and work with anyone in order to move forward issues he cared deeply about.

He used all the resources he had: his name, his charm, his booming voice, and his unique bully pulpit to cut the best deals he could -- and to never go home empty-handed.

I am not surprised Kennedy said his biggest regret from his Senate career was not accepting the universal health-care deal Richard Nixon offered him. That was back in phase 2, before he had cleansed himself of his presidential ambitions and the comfort of his narrow advocacy role. He learned enough not to make the same mistake when George W. Bush offered him partnership on education reform, which became No Child Left Behind.

Had he been more engaged over the past year, Kennedy could have taught this president something about deal making and leadership, and this country would be a lot closer to health care reform than it is today.

As a former state legislator and a constituent of Ted Kennedy for over 30 years, I will remember him for his skill and courage in creating unusual alliances, in raising the heat, in holding on to his core values, and in disappointing his own followers, all in the interest of making progress on what was closest to his heart.

In the end, he broke through that Gardol screen. He found his voice.


By Marty Linsky

 |  August 27, 2009; 9:24 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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LarryG62 is Spot-on. Ted Kennedy was a disgrace and a poor excuse for a human being. He was a cheat, a drunk, and a privileged rich kid who never worked an honest day in his life. His feigned indignation on the senate floor was as phony an act as they come. He should have gone to jail for his drunken negligence that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. I hope he rots!

Posted by: hunter125 | August 27, 2009 8:36 PM
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Amazing to read some of the trashy comments made here. Sounds like scumbags who are stupid enough to have been heavily indoctrinated by Limbaugh and the Fox mouthpieces......

An Independent

Posted by: aeaustin | August 27, 2009 8:27 PM
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I mean no disrespect to the dead - but the axiom - shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations" comes to mind.
If he wasn't a Kennnedy he would never have gotten where got - he would have been in jail!
I will pray for him - because he will need all the prayers he can get!

Posted by: thornegp1 | August 27, 2009 6:45 PM
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Teaching at the Haaaavaaaard Kennedy School - geeze I am sure that makes you objective or is it objectionable? I have a dollar now go buy yourself a cup of joe!

Posted by: PalmSpringsGirl | August 27, 2009 6:43 PM
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Obviously, you can teach at the Kennedy School and write about Ted Kennedy without knowing anything about his career. From 1962 to 1968, "There was no leadership in phase 1, just survival," when he was the Senate floor leader, at age 32, for the Immigration and Naturalization Act, one of the key pieces of legislation of the last half-century? He was a "predictable but inspiring" hack for liberal causes from 1968 to 1980, when he led the effort for airline and trucking deregulation?

Like him or not, Kennedy's signature as a Senator from day one was building coalitions with opponents to get major national legislation passed. That sounds like leadership to me.

Posted by: Huey1 | August 27, 2009 5:48 PM
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Obviously this bozo teaches at the Kennedy School, a bastion of arrogant liberal eggheads.
Only one of these know it alls would call a slug like Ted Kennedy authentic.
The guy was a cheat, a drunk, a privileged rich kid who never had an honest job, aa pro abortion catholic(ha), and someone who should have served time for manslaughter.
What a load of horse manure.

Posted by: LarryG62 | August 27, 2009 5:17 PM
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I think you missed two of the most critical turning points in his own life. Do you honestly think that Chappaquiddick had NO effect on his life (for better or worse)? Do you think the drinking incident that he initiated with his nephew, who was charged but acquitted of a rape charge, had NO effect on his life?
These were personal tsunamis for Senator Kennedy and they effected his personal life and his political career far more than failure to unseat a sitting President, Jimmy Carter [a herculean task]. If you are going to do an analysis on the man, then get it all out. A far more compelling question is how these events, along with the assassination and death of all three of his older brothers - effected him. Your 1976 interview is a compelling story in the context of these personal tragedies, why not discuss them?

Posted by: afghaniraqkuwaitkoreavet | August 27, 2009 12:21 PM
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It was President Ford that closed thee Window on Health care...

Nixon first proposed national health insurance as a conservative California congressman in 1947. He grew up poor and lost two brothers to tuberculosis, which marked him for life. He frequently pointed to the cure for tuberculosis as a medical marvel that underscored the need for a public-private partnership on health care.

"It was something personal for him," Price said of Nixon's health-care push.

Despite the heated politics of Watergate, national health-care legislation was proceeding in Congress thanks to a compromise brokered by a young Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy, a Nixon nemesis.

But then, according to a 1974 political almanac published by Congressional Quarterly, the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers lobbied successfully to kill the plan. Unions hoped to get a better deal after the next elections.

The rest was, as they say, history.

Nixon resigned that Aug. 8. Four days later his successor, Gerald Ford, addressed Congress and sought a bipartisan effort to pass national health-care insurance. But the economy soured, Ford sought to rein in government spending and national health care languished.

Posted by: bfs515 | August 27, 2009 12:19 PM
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Nice read by the way! Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: B2O2 | August 27, 2009 11:47 AM
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Editorial note:

"People who he spoke for felt represented."

"who" should be object form "whom" (People for whom he spoke, actually)

Posted by: B2O2 | August 27, 2009 11:44 AM
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You mean we could have had universal health care during Nixon's term? No wonder he spent so much time on health care; he closed the last open window.

Posted by: forgetthis | August 27, 2009 11:10 AM
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